Cruzar la Cara de la Luna Is a Lovely Chamber Piece with the Great Mariachi Vargas, But Is It an Opera? Well...
Photo by Felix Sanchez., Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera Saul Avalos (Chucho) and Octavio Moreno (Laurentino) leave their families behind in Mexico to work in the United States
Check out our interview with baritone Octavio Moreno.
Houston Grand Opera can call Jose Martinez (music/lyrics) and Leonard Foglia's (book/co-lyricist) pleasant little musical an "opera" if they desire, but they might as well call my Aunt Mary the Queen of Romania. Saying it often and loud does not make it so.
This "mariachi opera" is not an opera. Cruzar la Cara de la Luna/To Cross the Face of the Moon is, however, a lovely chamber piece that uses mariachi music as its spine. But an opera? -- forget about it!
Opera traffics in big emotions. Opera is sung through. Opera is artificial: Do you know anyone who sings on his deathbed? Do you know anyone who sings when happy? Or sad? Or when doing the laundry? Me neither. But that's what they do in opera. That's the purpose of opera. That's what they're supposed to do. Everybody sings, no matter what they're doing, no matter how they feel, no matter where they are or who's watching.
Ahh, I hear you saying, but they sing almost throughout in Cruzar. Sure, there's a little bit of dialogue here and there; even Carmen and Tales of Hoffmann have spoken passages, and there're regarded as opera classics. And you'd be right. Classifications in music are mighty fluid, and in some cases it takes scores of years -- sometimes centuries -- to be admitted into the august pantheon that is regarded as "opera."
Sorry to be the one to tell you, but Cruzar's never gonna get there. There's a world of difference between Carmen's eroticism or Hoffmann's fantasia, which are completely contained inside Bizet and Offenbach's musical universe, unlike the dancey, pop rhythms of Cruzar. No matter how infectious Martinez' music is -- and, believe me, it makes one want to leap into the aisle and salsa till dawn -- it never illuminates the emotions of the story. There's a great big disconnect between what we hear and what we're supposed to hear. The story is sketchy enough, and the music, though tuneful, is incapable of conveying the inherent drama.
Patriarch Laurentino (baritone Octavio Moreno) lies dying in Houston. His American son Mark (baritone Brian Shircliffe) and granddaughter Diana (soprano Brittany Wheeler) realize that Dad longs to return home to Mexico, which he left 50 years ago to work in the United States to support his family, leaving young wife Renata (mezzo Cecilia Duarte) and son Rafael (tenor David Guzmán) in Michoacán, home of the monarch butterflies. In his delirium, Dad relives his wedding, his love for Renata, old friendships with townies Chucho and Lupita (mariachi singers Saúl Ávalos and Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo), and his childhood dreams of flying away with the butterflies. Later, Renata, longing for Laurentino, flees to the United States. to be with him, only to die on the journey, leaving young Rafael to be raised in Mexico by her relatives. There are three generations in this story, and none of them gets full treatment, operatic or mariachian. (To say nothing about Laurentino's American wife, Mark's mother, who isn't even mentioned.)
Apologies to Martinez and his great ensemble Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, one of the preeminent mariachi bands anywhere in the world, but everything sounds the same. All the songs have redolent melodies -- I'm still humming the haunting quartet finale, "Mi Hogar," ("My Home") -- but this series of concert arias is no more descriptive of a dying man's hopes and dreams than the soundtrack to a telenovela. What happened to the drama? Where's the passion in the music? Why does Renata's angry lament, "A Town Without Men" make no more impression than Laurentino and Chucho's macho comedy duet, "Ten Times More." We can dance to these songs, we can hum them, but we're nowhere moved by them. For all its flaws, faults, and artifice, opera moves us. Its music, itself, is dramatic.
The concert staging, more intricate and colorful than the 2010 HGO premiere, but no more involving, is still way too small to fit comfortably inside the immense Brown auditorium at the Wortham. The theater makes the work look meager and insignificant. In sound, size, and import, Cruzar is meant for the Wortham's Cullen theater, where everything's closer and immediate. An intimate space is much more forgiving. In the Brown, we keep waiting for the stage to fill up. It never does.
The cast is the same as in 2010, and Ms. Duarte still impresses as she did then with her honeyed mezzo and feisty charm. That her character has the most to do -- the one with at least a dramatic impulse: to follow her husband -- keeps her center stage even when she drops out of the story. The other singers are fine, but the amplification does no one any good, turning the voices loud and undistinguished.
While HGO is to be commended for bringing many new patrons into the Wortham for Cruzar, I doubt they will be able to lure them back for upcoming Tristan or Il Trovatore. Seventy minutes of toe-tapping mariachi is one thing, four hours of impassioned Wagner is something completely different. That's what we call opera!
One more performance, Sunday matinee at 2 p.m., Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Purchase tickets online at houstongrandopera.org or call 713-228-OPERA (6737). $25-$145.